400TH POST! The sacred springs and holy wells of the St David’s Peninsula Part One (part one) by Julie Trier Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
To introduce my commentary on the holy wells of St Davids in Pembrokeshire (one of the three counties presently constitionlly Dyfed), I would like to highlight a passage from Francis Jones’ now well-known guide, The Holy Wells of Wales:
“There are in the district twelve holy wells, seven of which are concentrated in the immediate vicinity of St Davids, as also are most of the cromlechau. It is probable that some of these wells were there in pre-Christian days. In St David’s time, a powerful pagan family lived there. Yet it was here in the heart of the pagan camp that the missionaries settled and it was here that Dewi St David) built his church, and twelve chapels were erected in the same district. It is possible that in this remote headland, with its rugged cairns looking westward over the waves towards the setting sun, lay the sacred mysteries of our ancient pagan stock.” (Jones 1992, 25-6).
Here is an evocative acknowledgement of the roots of our holy wells, inextricably linked with the ancient cultures. It has moved me to attempt a brief history of the early peoples of this region, suggesting their relationship with water sources in terms ‘sacred mysteries of their religious beliefs and customs (Jones’).
Some reference to contemporary evidence from other areas is used, to present this apparently ‘remote headland’ and its possible water cults within a broader historical, archaeological and religious context. This will lead into the Christian era when wells took on a new status and, in many cases, their present names. Most of the prescribed ‘twelve’ will be detailed along the way, although of those visited and recorded by Major Jones, a few have unfortunately all but disappeared.
In the beginning…
To live on the St David’s peninsula is to be ever aware of the presence of water, bounded as we are by the Irish Sea to the north, west, and south. Rainfall is plentiful, creating a landscape which flows with springs, streams, and a modest river, all microcosmic echoes of the last Ice Age melt-down that carved out the valleys and ‘cwms’ 12,000 years ago.
From about 8000 BC, as the climate warmed, the Mesolithic cave-dwellers of southern Pembrokeshire began to live in open settlements on the low-lying forested and marshy land beside the shores. Much of this land was later submerged beneath the sea (tree stumps are occasionally revealed during unusual surface-shifts at local beaches) as the water level finally rose, around 5500 BC (Miles 1978, 37; Worsley 1989, 13-14). Two thousand years later, the western sea-routes became established by Neolithic colonists originally from the Near East, who arrived in their skin-covered craft by way of Atlantic Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of farming (Bowen 1972, 26, 36). Their communities were probably sited close to the abundant natural springs, life-sustaining sources of water which would have been cherished for their practical uses; and doubtless reverenced as shrines. As they lived in close contact with the natural world, these people must have appreciated the earth’s creative, nurturing, and regenerative qualities, and felt awe at its destructive potential. Water issuing from unknown depths below the ground would suggest renewal and continuity of life after death It is natural, therefore, to find many of their burial chambers – erected to commemorate prominent or prosperous families – positioned near to sacred springs. It is interesting to note that a number of traditions exist linking both well and tomb with healing ceremonies (Jones 1992, 14-17,101). Dowser Guy Underwood believed these tombs also marked ‘blind springs of exceptional importance’. He considered such sites to be ‘the esoteric “centre” of the Old Religion as well as being the actual centre of its monuments’ (Underwood 1974, 92, 39). It has also been suggested that these cromlechs or dolmens, their huge earth mounds once concealing inner chambers of stone tripod and capstone, would have stood prominently upon the landscape, acting as territorial markers (Hills 1986, 50; John 1994, 13). Many wells were also used to mark boundaries (Bord 1985, 74; Jones 1992, 55-7). Two possible local examples of well, cromlech, and boundary complexes are worth noting here,
Ffynnon Penarthur (‘Penarthur Well’: SM 751265), ‘which stood at the end of the land of Arthur Li.e. the pen – ‘head’, or ‘end’ – of Arthur), was a boundary mark of a manor at St Davids’ (Jones 1992, 5). The ‘land of Arthur’ (probably just a local chieftain, although an Arthurian legend exists in this area: Jones & Jones 1982, 123), would appear to extend from the spring westwards for two miles, to the edge of the peninsula, where a cromlech named Coetan Arthur Arthur’s Quoit’) can be seen against the sky-line on St Davids Head. The easterly boundary at ‘Arthur’s End’ (as it was actually shown on some maps), marked by the well, would seem to be naturally formed by a stream which flows through marshy ground to join the River Alun as it meanders along the valley towards St Davids, half a mile away. It is possible that a second boundary, extending into fields as a footpath (on 25″ O.S. map, 1908), intersects the first at the well-site. This may be ‘the boundary of a manor at St Davids’. It is stated that this holy well ‘had an ancient cromlech nearby which was destroyed’ (Sharkey 1994, 51). Fifteen years ago, a visiting archaeologist told the then owner of Penarthur farm that a large stone in an adjacent field appeared to be the capstone of a cromlech. This stone had been removed and the present farmer did not know its whereabouts.
A recent inspection of the well-site revealed a large flat stone of the capstone type serving as a wayside foot-bridge, in the verge opposite the spring. Today there is nothing to see of the original well-structure except for a few moss-covered boulders around a modern concrete water-tank. A hollow indentation in a large boulder – ‘a common feature of holy wells’ – had been observed previously (Sharkey 1994, 51). A small hut next to the spring houses the machinery that pumps the water uphill to Penarthur farm, a quarter-mile distant. As with so many once-sacred springs, the identity of Ffynnon Penarthur has almost been effaced. However, it was once of undoubted importance, as three ornamented stones are believed to have stood around it, placed there in the early Christian era. One of these, the inscribed ‘Gurmarc’ stone, with its unusual Alpha and Omega symbols (Laws 1888, 76, 77; Dark 1992, 19, 20; James 1981 -illustration Pl. 5) had been serving as a farm gatepost in 1856. The other two were found in hedge banks. By 1886 all had been rescued and placed in St Davids cathedral (Arch. Camb. 1856, 50-1; ib. 1886, 43-5). Together with a further cross- marked stone from the Penarthur area, they are now to be seen in the new lapidarium in St Mary’s Hall, in St Davids. The three stones are of particular interest as the complex interlacing of their designs is specifically Irish, an influence which recurs constantly in this area.
At Naw Ffynnon (‘Nine Wells ‘), two miles east of St Davids (SM 788240), another example of the well/crornlech/boundary combination can be observed. Destroyed in the last century, the cromlech stood in a field above a now ivy-covered roadside well, one of the original nine (Jones 1992, 26). A few yards away, across the main road, and spanning a rushing stream, stands an old inscribed stone indicating the boundary between St Davids and Whitchurch parishes. As the name suggests, water is the predominating feature of this area. The English antiquarian Browne Willis, using material supplied by a local correspondent (James 1981, 182), reported: ‘not far from a Place called Llandridian (Druid’s Church) there are nine Wells within five or six paces of one another’. (Willis 1716, 66. Willis’ etymology is incorrect here. Tridian is a personal name, and doubtless recalls an otherwise completely forgotten saint: in the parish of St Nicholas, ten miles north of St Davids, there is a further Llandridian, and a well called Ffynnon Dridian -Wade-Evans 1910, 28-9.) And the gentleman historian Richard Fenton, who was born in St Davids, in his Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire written a century later, remarks: ‘Part of the road is constantly irrigated with water issuing out of that conflux of springs called ‘ ‘The Nine Wells’ ” (Fenton 1903, 76),
Although from these descriptions it would appear that all nine wells were almost amalgamated, at least four individual springs and wells are identifiable, scattered around a slightly wider area, and are known locally as members of the Nine Wells. The most accessible representative of the group stands, as mentioned, on the wide verge beside the road at the entrance to the track leading to the coast. Its stone structure is camouflaged with ivy, and its frontal retaining slab has been deeply indented by the constant friction of buckets, indicating its heavy use by the local community within living memory.
Close to this well is a modern dwelling, formerly a pump house which was built over one of the conflux of springs at the turn of the last century in order to take water to St Davids. In the 1930s the other springs in the immediate vicinity were incorporated into a large underground tank, to boost this supply. The colourful folklore of Nine Wells, as collected locally by Jones, indicates the interest in this site both in pagan and Christian times
By these wells stood a cromlech which was destroyed in the last century, and where a mound still exists. The tradition states – that in pagan times twelve maidens each under twelve years of age were burnt alive as a sacrifice on the stone altar there; that in Catholic times mass was celebrated at the wells, priests dipped their rosaries there, and water was carried thence to St David’s Cathedral to wash the sepulchre (the shrine of David?); that sick pilgrims came from Tregroes via Dwrhyd by Llwybir Pererindod (the ‘Pilgrims’ Path’ I (the path and the name are lost) to bathe at Nine Wells, and were then conveyed in a cart to Non’s Well where the cure was completed, and were finally carried to the Cathedral where they were blessed by a priest (Jones 1992, 26).
The ‘altar’ was evidently the cromlech. In Wales, cromlechs were regularly termed altar, allor, because of their suggestive shape. Their earthen mounds would possibly have eroded by Iron Age times, revealing the altar-shaped structures, which may then have been associated with druidic sacrificial rites – if not in actuality, then in the imaginations of later generations. Hence the legend at Nine Wells (and possibly the ‘Druid’s Church’ of Willis’ report). The ‘pilgrims’ path’ from Tregroes (Whitchurch) to Nine Wells made a slight detour from the main southern pilgrims’ route across Wales and the St Davids peninsula, which passed through Whitchurch and on directly westwards to the shrine of St David.
( Though no other information has survived locally to substantiate this, the reference to the ‘pilgrims’ path’, and the consecutive visiting of the various sacred sites of the St Davids parish culminating in a visit to the cathedral, suggests perhaps that it was once the custom to visit all the ‘twelve’ chapels and wells of the region in a single ’round’ a common enough practice at specifically sacred pilgrimage sites throughout the Celtic lands. It is known from other shrines in Wales (at Holyhead, Anglesey, the custom continued into the eighteenth century) and is still a regular feature of pilgrimage in Ireland – note from editor)
The Neolithic engineers who were apparently supported by the farming communities to construct the chambered tombs, were also responsible for the first stone circles. These were refined by the incoming Bronze Age or Beaker Folk, around 2000BC, who also set up isolated standing stones (megaliths, or menhirs). These, like the cromlechs, are often found close revered to springs, or: with their long axes pointing to water courses 1992, (Jones 15-18, 10, Arch. Camb., 1989, 21). A local example of such a well and stone circle connection (St Non’s) will be described in Part Two.
The arrangements of stones could be used in conjunction with the heavens as almanacs to predict auspicious moments in the farming year (Worsley 1987, 2, 3, 38-9). Did they also play a part in utilising or controlling currents within the earth, and emanations from the water below ground? Electrical engineer and dowser Bill Lewis found that underground streams radiate outward from the centre of stone circles, passing directly beneath the gaps between the stones. The movement of underground water creates a small static electric field, intensified where such streams cross, An electrical field produced in this way also concentrates neutron (or natural) radiation (Hitching 1976, 119, 121-3; Gordon 1989, 48, 52). This is verified and developed by Roger Coghill, researcher and author of Electropollurion, who suggests that ‘since the telectricall current produced by the underground movement of water forms a continually changing magnetic field around itself, it constitutes a chronic disturbance of the environment’. Through case studies, he concludes that subterranean aquifers, particularly where streams cross at different levels, may detrimentally affect the health of life on the surface (Coghill 1990, 117, 64).
However it is also interesting to note that electro-magnetic fields (E.M.Fs) are used in modern medicine, as they appear to stimulate body tissue to heal faster; but that, if experienced at the wrong frequency, as indicated above they can be damaging. The early scientists, probably recognising these energies through observation and divination, could then have judged them helpful or harmful. If this learned group – perhaps constituted as a priesthood – could be seen to manipulate the forces of nature, they would have been in a powerful position; but their authority would ultimately have rested upon the maintenance of the prosperity of the land and its people.
Fundamental to this would have been the preservation of a fresh water supply, and in particular, the springs. These not only afforded vital refreshment, but had ‘magical’ (? mineral) properties which might promote health; and their constant outpouring would have symbolised fecundity and well-being, which might have been regarded as the favours of a mother-goddess. Such a female deity was likely at that time to have embraced all aspects of existence, including death (her images were buried in tombs with the dead: Green 1993, 72-3) and, naturally, water, the ‘quickening’ element of life. In the Neolithic era specific water worship is less distinct in Britain than in other ancient civilisations, such as those of Egypt and Greece. However, Aubrey Burl in his The Stone Circles of the British Isles has remarked upon the above-noted connection between stone circles and water sources, suggesting ‘the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings’ (Bord 1985, 2-4). Rites of passage such as birth, betrothal or death, and rituals to induce healing and divination, may have been celebrated at these sanctuaries. Remnants of these appear to have persisted through the ages, as folk memories and customs may reflect (Jones 1992, 15-16, 101).
The worship of water deities became more apparent in the Bronze Age. As metallurgy flourished, cult objects and votive offerings were fashioned in the new metal. Although no evidence has been found to date from this era at spring-sites in Wales (possibly due to lack of excavation), the veneration of springs at that time appears to have been widespread, propitiatory gifts in bronze having been found in Denmark, Switzerland, France, and Italy (Jones 1992, 96). Unnamed supernatural powers associated with water and the sun were worshipped, as shown by artefacts depicting aquatic birds and sun-symbols (for example, ducks with sun-wheels) in Central Europe (Green 1993, 138, 147-8). At a late-Bronze Age settlement at Lichterfelde, Germany, well-offerings of rows of small vessels layered with grass may indicate a request for water in times of drought (Green 1993, 139). A well, 100 deep, containing wooden buckets, ropes, utensils and amber beads possibly a ritual deposit – was discovered at Wilsford near Stonehenge (Bord 1985, 4). This shaft dates from the time of the completion of Stonehenge, c. 1300 BC, when the ‘blue stones’ from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire were rearranged in the way they are seen today (Green 1993, 145; Atkinson 1959, 17; Worsley 1987, 6, 32-5). The route that was established between the famous ‘temple’ in Wiltshire and the source of the esteemed spotted dolerite of the Preselis was significant in the Bronze Age for another reason, which also concerns St Davids. Merchant-smiths from as far away as Greece and Minoan Crete followed this road all the way to the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, where they traded their bronze, amber, and jet for Irish gold; a metal with which they delighted to decorate jewellery, weapons, and objects for use in solar worship (Worsley 1987, 52, 86; Bowen 1972, 43, 46, 48-9; Glob 1973, 101, 113, 115, 123-5). St Davids, at the closest corner of Britain to Ireland, stood at the end of this land route (‘the Golden Way’) across Wales, Porth Mawr (Whitesands Beach) being the embarkation point for the traders’ sea crossing. It is possible that some of our holy wells close to the shore once received offerings in bronze adorned with ship symbols, tokens greatly favoured at that period as protective prayers for dangerous voyages by sea (Glob 1973, 148).
Part two with references next month
Holy, healing and ritual waters of Catalonia: Jafre’s Santuari de la Font Santa
De Jafre you are the crown, the joy and the consolation; your love caresses, the region as one; our faith kneels, with your grace and virtue.
The Joys to Our Lady of the Fountains of Jafre by Mn. Francesc Viver and with music by Salvador Dabau. 1945.
Many visit Catalonia in Spain and visit Barcelona, Girona and of course the wonderful coastland, but for those interested in healing, holy and in this case water used for ritual purposes will find Catalonia a very rewarding location. Sites range from thermal springs to ritual mikveh and in at least one holy well. To find this holy well, a journey inland is necessary to locate the Santuari de la Font Santa with its fountain ‘dels Horts de Mari’.
Why a holy well here?
Why in this fairly remote location should there be a shrine to Our Lady you may ask. Well unsurprisingly this was due to an apparition of the Virgin seen by a local person. This was a local farmer, Miquel Castelló, who in November 1460, received a warning that the water of the spring would become miraculous. Interestingly, Miquel Castelló written statement and a document collating the witness testimony of a number of people which was commissioned by the Bishop of Girona are preserved. The following account gives fuller details of it:
“on a Friday in the year 1460, when Miquel del mas Castelló was plowing his field in Bosc Gran, a young stranger appeared to him and told him that the water from the spring had healing properties. Faced with the farmer’s disbelief, who did not believe his words, the young man prophesied that a child would die in Jafre that very day. Miquel Castelló hadn’t finished plowing when he heard knocking. When he returned home he learned that Bernat Dolza’s son had just died. Terrified, he told the rector what had happened to him and he immediately exhorted the parishioners to have faith in the waters of that source.”
Very soon after this news spread and people begun to visit to spring from all over the country. Its waters were said to be good for eye disorders, especially it is said for blind people. However, it was also good for paralysis, fevers, sore throat and rheumatism. Such was the popularity of the site that on the 25th June 1461 there was a general assembly of the local households and councillors which was presided over in the parish church by the vicar general of the diocese. At the meeting it was decided that a chapel, decided to Our Lady, would be built by the spring and make pools and eye washing places although they appear to have been now lost. The spring was formally then adopted as a holy well. The waters could be spiteful though and it is said if sinful people washed there the water would stop!
The sanctuary complex and springhead.
This 15th century complex consists of unified building made of rough stone and angular ashlars with a central chapel with outbuildings with the different rooms and a large atrium to which a lowered arcade gives access. The chapel has a single nave with a barrel vaulted roof however the cambril is modern having been destroyed in the 1930s Civil War.
The font itself flows from a small barrel vaulted arched structure with the water flowing from a metal pipe into a natural basin of rock covered with moss. One accesses the spring by a small set of stone steps down to the water. On ledges flowers and small offerings were placed indicating still an active shrine. The whole structure is made of undressed stone and pieces of pottery. Above the spring in a niche is a figure of the Virgin Mary.
This figure replaced one lost during the Civil War and is made of plaster with. She has the child Jesus on her knees and holds in her right hand a representation of the spring head and the child carries in his right hand the ball of the world. This figure was blessed on November 11, 1939, after the cult’s restoration on the 8th of September.
A place of pilgrimage
When I visited it was quiet and desolate feeling, the chapel was locked but access was easily found to the spring. However, at key dates in the Catholic and local calendar the sanctuary is busy with processions and people taking the water. The year starts with a local mass of thanks giving for the water’s role in the local town’s cholera epidemic in 1884, on or around the January 20th. Understandably the main days of procession and pilgrimage are those associated with significant feast days of our Lady such as March 25th, Feast of the Virgin Mary of Gràcia when the water from the fountain is blessed. On the May 1 or first Sunday in May there is also a blessing of the fields and of course the whole month of May being Mary’s month it is generally a popular day of devotion. The Assumption of Mary in or around the 15th August and perhaps the most significant the 8th of September, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary with the 8th of December being recognised for the feast of The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Another notable day is Corpus Christi when a flower carpet is laid within the chapel’s aisle. Today the site is really only of local importance its countrywide fame disappearing over the years, but it remains and important holy well in Catalonia and one well worth visiting.
How old is St George’s Well at Minsteracres?
As St Georg’s Day approaches I thought it would be interesting to cast one’s attention to wells dedicated to the saint. Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells Sourcebook refers to six wells dedicated to St George: Wilton, Cullompton, Hethe, Holsworthy, Kirkwhelpington and Stamford. He does not include Padstow’s St George’s Well because he does not include Cornwall in his survey. Interestingly though he misses a St George’s Well at Minsteracres which means despite a sparse distribution across the country, two exist in Northumberland.
It thus begs two questions. Why does England’s patron saint have so few wells dedicated to them? And how authentic then are the St George’s wells which are known?
One of the most interesting is that at Minsteracres at Barley Hill Northumberland. The Historic record notes simply: Park with gate lodges, water features, a well and a chapel. The well itself lies in a shrubbery enclosed in a small piece of low stone walling on one side rubble built behind and dressed at the front. The spring arises in a circular chamber near the walling in a pavement area which is lower and enclosed. There is often water in the well but no perceivable flow. The brickwork looks Victorian and the site is marked on the first series OS map but significantly perhaps not in italics suggesting no great age.
The estate is mediaeval but it is likely to be two origins to the well. Firstly it could link back to the family who owned the estate in the 1800s, the Silvertop family. They were devout Catholics, who made considerable fortune from coal mining but were persecuted for their faith. George Silvertop is likely to be the first one responsible. He travelled widely and brought back a number of trees and plants from his journeys to beautify the estate. Did he improve a spring and dedicate it? The second likely person is his nephew Henry Charles Englefield, who inherited the estate and adopted the family name and significantly built the mansion’s private chapel which became St Elizabeth’s Catholic parish church in 1854. Did he need a spring for baptism water and liturgical processes – if so why George and not Elizabeth?
The final group of people were those who took over the estate after the second world war: Friar Colum Devine of the Passionist Order, who transformed Minsteracres into a monastery and retreat centre which opened in 1967. However, despite a Catholic order being the most obvious choice for dedication their taking over of the estate is too late as it had already appeared on the OS map by that point. My person guess is the Henry Charles Englefield but I am sure that a deeper examination of the records may reveal something and perhaps explain why this saint was adopted. And was it an earlier holy well forgot and restored or just a simple spring?
So why are St George’s Wells so scarce? One would have thought being England’s patron saint would have been popular enough to have a large number of dedications but that it a way underlines how wells are named and why. Did the cult of St George arrive too late to see a wide spread adoption of his name? Indeed of the 6 wells mentioned by Harte on Wilton’s has any authenticity being recorded as mediaeval. But of course this did stop the wider adoption of St Anne in the 14th century. Of course that in itself may suggest why certain saints had better ‘healing traditions’ and saintly importance in the pantheon of saints. Equally often wells adopted saints names due to an association of the saint with water and healing. St George does not obviously appear to have either.
St Cuby’s Well Duloe Cornwall
If I was to be asked ‘take me’ to a classic holy well, one which had that romantic and mysterious feel and remained in the 21st century still a place of solitude and contemplation, one site I would suggest is St Cuby’s Well at Duloe. Throw in the fact nearby is the presence of an ancient church and a unique quartz stone circle and the site certainly has its attractions to the antiquarian.
In Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by Mabel Quiller-Couch (1894) tells us:
“In the parish of Duloe, on the road which leads from Sandplace to Duloe Church, at one time stood the consecrated well of St. Cuby… The well of St. Cuby was a spring of water on the left hand side of the above road, which flowed into a circular basin of granite, carved and ornamented round the edge with the figures of dolphins, and on the lower part with the figure of a griffin; it is in shape somewhat like a font, with a drain for the carrying off of the water.”
The well is first mentioned in land documents appearing as La Welle with the valley Kippiscomebe according to Lane-Davies being Cuby’s combe being originally Cub’s combe.
Why was St. Cuby?
St. Cybi (Cuby) founded a monastic settlement within ‘Caer Gybi,’ being born 480 AD at Callington near Plymouth. His father was a Cornish Chieftain and great grandson of Cystennin Gorneu, King Arthur’s grandfather. He was a well connected saint, his mother Gwen, was sister of Non, St. David’s mother. He decided not to follow in his family footsteps and being a chieftain and so became a Christian monk travelling to Gaul establishing religious centres with his disciples. He returned to Cornwall settled at Tregony living in a cell next to a well. Quiller-Couch (1894) notes:
“This saint, who has been called also Keby by some of his biographers, was the son of Solomon, a Christian king or chieftain of Cornwall. According to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Solomon was a son of Geraint, and his wife was a sister of St. Non. St.Cuby at an early age gave himself up to learning and religion ; he renounced all claim to his father’s kingdom, to which he undoubtedly had the right, in favour of his brother’s family, and settled at Tregony for a short time, after which he visited Ireland, and finally went to Anglesea, where he died.”
Traditions of the well
According to Helen Fox in her Cornish Saints and holy wells the well’s water cured TB, Scurvy and rheumatism although I am unsure where this piece of folklore is derived from. The most well-known piece is quoted by Quiller-Couch wo states that:
“The well at one time was very much respected, and treated with reverence by the neighbouring people, who believed that some dire misfortune would befall the person who should attempt to remove it. Tradition says that a ruthless fellow once went with a team of oxen for the purpose of removing the basin ; on reaching the spot one of the oxen fell down dead, which so alarmed the man that he desisted from the attempt.”
In Mrs Peel’s Our Cornish Home, it is said that the basin was broken when it was rolled down Kippiscombe by drinken workmen and it came to rest beside a cottage of an old lady who heard the Piskeys laughing over it all night.
Quiller-couch notes that:
“In spite of this tradition, however, the basin has been moved, probably when the new road was cut, and was taken to the bottom of the woods ‘on the Trenant estate ; it is now placed in Trenant Park.”
This story of the well is told in more details in In the Old Cornwall Journal of April 1928 the story is told that so strong was the superstition attached to the basin that when the squire (Wm Peel d 1871) wished to move it into Trenant Park for preservation about 1863 he had to pledge himself firmly to provide the pensions for the families of any who fell dead before the carters would took the stone. Of this font one now must travel to the church being returned in 1959 when it returned to the parish. It is a remarkable relic with a snake, griffin and dolphin on the bowl’s rim. It certainly looks pre-medieval.
Recently as it spreads across Cornwall (and beyond) the well have become a rag well or as it might be called locally clootie well.
The well today
The well is made of granite ashlar with a gabled end and roof constructed of large blocks of granite with a rounded head arched entrance with an ancient Celtic cross above the door. There are two cells the outer one has a stone seat but its a cramped location to wait. The inner well house is built into the bank and has a round-headed arch to the inner well house room which has corbelled walls and a flat stone roof. The well is thought to be 15th century but its present state owes to be restored by a former Rector The Rev. Dr, Barrington Ward around 1822 when the nearby road was built and remains a delightfully well preserved granite well chapel. Despite being close to a road it is a peaceful spot shrouded by bushes and resembles a grotto where within you can be devoid of the world outside as it is dark; very little light penetrates through! The water now seeps from the side and flows into the floor of the second chamber. It is clear and flowing although it had a dead mole in it! Despite this it is a remarkable place.
England’s first holy well? St. Augustine’s Well, Ebbsfleet
Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.
However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:
“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”
Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:
“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”
The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:
“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.”
However, Howarth (1938) who notes:
“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.”
Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:
“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”
Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:
“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”
I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.
St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?
Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.
The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s!
The site today
When James Rattue visited he described it as:.
“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”
Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water.
Blessing the St James’s and Potter’s Wells at Midhopestones
It is a small community. Blink and you’d miss it on the way to Penistone. It does appear to be able to agree on its name Midhope cum Langsett or Midhopestones? There’s an even smaller church, really a chapel and even smaller congregation. But what it lacks in size it certainly makes up with atmosphere and devotion – no other church in the region blesses its wells without a dressing. Furthermore it boasts two of the county’s more substantial healing springs.
Springing from somewhere?
The history of the custom is an obscure one. There is record of this being a revival. When it was revived local people who recall it being done in their lifetime and local belief is that the blessing of the well was done in the 1800s. Perhaps like the Bisley well blessings it was the brainchild of a local High Church clergyman who wanted to return a bit of colour back into these mundane mining landscapes. Sadly despite the conviction of this being an old tradition nothing is written down to support the view. Sadly, the only history of the area Joseph Kenworthy’s (1935) The Lure of Midhope-cum-Langsett fails to mention it although it does discuss St. James Well. Mind you it is worth noting he does not refer to the Potters well so it might not have been that comprehensive. Indeed he does state that the customs of the village have not been recorded. Was he hinting something?
“At Nether Midhope in the Precincts of the Manorial Homestead of Midhope-in-Waldershelf, may have been held in superstitious reverence long before Anglo-Saxon, Dane or Norman came on the scene” (Kenworthy)”.
It is worth noting that Joseph Kenworthy was apparently a local historian in this area however he does not appear to have written or discovered a great deal about the well. The genuine belief of its age suggests to me that this was a revived custom otherwise well dressing would have been done instead or as well when it returned. As it was across this part of South Yorkshire at Dore, Norton – itself in 1972 and close by in Penistone. Tony Foxworthy Folklore of Yorkshire (2008) states that the two well are dressed in June. However, I cannot find any corroboration of this in the usual sources such as Nayor and Porter’s Well dressing book! This suggests an older origin to me.
Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and spas of South Yorkshire notes that the custom was revived on the 1st October 1972 but appears now to be fixed firmly on the third Sunday of September. Why this date was chosen is unclear as it is not a patronal day or a date associated with well customs. He also notes that both wells are “decorated rather than dressed’ however this aspect of the custom does appear to have fallen into abeyance. The chapel now appears to be dressed in bouquets and wreaths and makes an evocative site.
Holy and healing springs
Oddly very little is known of St. James’s Well but the Potter’s well on which the plaque reads:
“A spring harnessed in 1720 when Midhope Old Pottery was built south-east of the bridge by M.W Gough, Potter. It is said the troughs came from the manorial hall. Until 1919, it was the only water source in Nether Midhope.”
“A publication of approximately 20 years ago gives some additional information about the Potter’s well: The water in this well was known as Idle Water it is known fact that you can boil an egg in it but it wont face another one.”
The spring was believed to be healing one:
“it is very fine add to children who suffer with whooping cough. Take a pint from the well, and give the patient a sip each day until it is gone and the result is a good recovery.”
Such customs can easily disappear from a parish as quickly as they begin, often being the initiative of an enthusiastic curate, who dies or moves on and the new incumbent either fails to keep it up or in some cases in openly in opposition to the custom. This is certainly true of the Church of England. And certainly true of customs associated with wells…the celebration of which is not to everyone’s taste. Fortunately, the revival was due to an Anglo-Catholic incumbent and the ministry here has remained High Church ever since….it’s probably unlikely to change and so the custom remains safe.
I arrived in the small village just as the service had started in the delightful old chapel of St. James. The lane up to it was packed with cars such that passing along it was difficult. Indeed at one point a combine harvester wanted to pass and came millimetres from the wing mirror of a parked car – I should think they are used to that around there.
I came into the chapel just as the Canon was discussing holy wells and was remarking about Harrogate and Buxton and what was known of their holy well, St. James. After around 40 minutes of the service the congregation assembled outside with the Loxley Silver band.
On this autumn afternoon, the weakness of the sun can be felt, leaves are beginning to fall….the bright red colour and sounds of the Locksley Brass Band give a vibrant jab in the arm on a grey afternoon. The hymn O Praise Ye the Lord is sung heartily at the entrance to the lane where the well is located. The band remained at the road way as the congregation lead by the clergy walked down the well. The well is located below this lane and is accessed by a gate and steps…down into a very muddy field…not surprisingly many of the attendees watched the ceremony from lane above. The well itself is surrounded by metal railings. One of the clergy stated we can get inside and opened a gate and one by one they entered. It is not a large enclosure and I wondered if they were attempting some sort of world record ‘how many clergy can we get in an enclosed space.’ Once there the following was recited:
“ Bless the Lord all created things, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, O Let the earth bless the Lord, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, Bless the Lord you mountains and hills, Sing his praise and exalt him forever, Bless the Lord all that grows in the ground, Sing his praise and exalt him forever.”
A porcelain cup was produced and at this point the Venerable Steve Wilcockson bent down and parting the green slime on the surface filled it with remarkably clean water. Fortunately he did not partake in it but upon saying the blessing poured the water to libate the well and effectively make it holy again! The blessing went:
“We give thanks to the Virgin Mary, Jesus St Paul, St Peter, John the Baptist and particular St James under who’s patron this well brings forth water and brings it to this water to the parish….In the faith of Jesus Christ we dedicate this well to the glory of god, in the honour of St James, in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost. Heavenly father, we thank you for the gift of water to refresh the earth and make things grow Bless hallow and sanctify this well.”
The group then traipse down the hill to the other well – the Potter’s Well – a decidedly more secular affair. Here the water was drawn by the canon and then poured to the ground again. Here not only was the well blessed but so was the Parish. The band was put to fine use with the playing of the Hymn Glorious things of these are spoke and then the National Anthem was sung and everyone retired to a light tea at that other great British institution – the pub!
A brief custom but a delightful one. Just as the celebration finished an out of breath man arrived ready with his camera…”have I missed it?” He had…but it’ll be on next year, the community clear recognise the importance of their waters. I cannot agree more when Wilson (1990) notes:
“An event such as decorating and blessing a well requires very little financial outlay, and whatever money is spent is amply compensated for by the enjoyment and community spirit which the event engenders. Bradfield Parish council must be congratulated for their vision and initiative. Other councils take note.”
The Divine Juggler of Doulting by Caroline Sherwood Source Issue 2 (Winter 1994)
The plants and trees on the surrounding banks seem to lean towards St Aldhelm’s Well in perpetual veneration. The effect is of being at the heart of a leafy hermit’s cell. The magic of the place is hidden from irreverent eyes by a wall through which the water trickles in a trough in the lane. In May the wooded slopes are lush with pungent wild garlic and all year round the steady sound of running water offers a refreshing reward even for the most world-weary modern pilgrim.
The village of Doulting (Somerset) lies about two miles east of Shepton Mallet on the A361. The name means ‘dark water’ and until the eighteenth century the river Sheppey was known as Doulting water. The village is famous for its stone which was used in the building of Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. In previous years Doulting St Agnes fountain (another holy well) was reputed to cure the ‘quarter-all’ (cattle paralysis) but not if the cattle was stolen.
St Aldhelm, after whom the well is named, was a Benedictine monk who died in Doulting in 709. He is immortalised in the present church in stained class and in a statue; standing beside his spring, which he often visited to pray and to baptise the faithful. It was customary until recently to use the wall water for all christening; these days this only happens at the special request of the parents.St Aldhelm was the first Englishmen to encourage classical study; writing lengthy prose in a flowery and extravagant Latin style. He moved in high circles and was a relative of Ina, the heathen King of the Saxons, as well as being Abbot of Malmsebury and later Bishop of Sherborne.
He also appears to have had an eccentric side to his character. Gloria and Favid Bowles are residents of Doulting and have made an extensive study of the saint and his well. They hold the spot in high regard and due to their strong sense of connection with the place, are keen to see it preserved as a sacred shrine. David told me that Aldhelm used to nuddgle and eat fire to attract would-be converts, as wella s being remembered for lying up to his neck in the ice-cold well bath, whilst reciting the Psalter. Hewent on to say, with an impish smile, that he cherishes a mental picture of St. Aldhelm juggling three balls before a fascinated audience while muttering ‘ Father, son and holy ghost’
The well is now under the management of the Shepton Mallet Amenity Trust which bought it from Wells Cathedral for £1. The trust tried to interfere as little as possible with the site, doing minor repairs to the walling and felling some dangerous trees. Test on the water proved it free of contaminants and good to drink. Plans a few years ago to bottle the water for wider distribution were not met warmly by the village and were abandoned.
In 1893 R. C. Hope in his Holy Wells of England described the water as ‘wonder-working; and there are legends about its ability to cure blindness. Fred Davies of the Amenity Trust told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared. There appears to be no recent mineral analysis of the water, which seems a worthwhile task, in view of the well’s reputation.
According to Janet and Colin Bord in their book Sacred Waters (Granada 1985) the earliest water cults can be traced to around 6000 BC with an increasing awareness of the importance of unpolluted water, we are today seeing something of a revival in interest in water lore. Most ancient cultures developed ritualised ways of honouring the value of water. Divinities and the guardian of sacred wells was recognised as female and revered by many names the world over. Some of the old deities’ names still remain hidden in the names of our rivers today. Ceremonies were regularly performed beside wells and springs – to improve one’s fortune, gain insight into the future, seek healing or even make a curse. Often wells are attributed with specialised healing properties; eye complaint, infertility and children’s ailments being most usual. In less cynical days than ours, pieces of clothing from the sick would be bathed in water and bound to the ailing part or tied to the branches overhanging the well. These days rags and offerings can sometimes be found in the vicinity of ancient holy wells and the tradition of well dressing surviving only in Derbyshire is now reappearing in other parts of the country.
For many years St. Aldhelm’s Well was a site of pilgrimage and in the 30s and 40s Dom Ethelbert Horne, a Downside monk and enthusiastic antiquarian, took parties of visitors to the well. He recorded its existence for posterity in his book ‘Holy wells of Somerset’ (1923)Today as well as being a recreational spot and a water hole, for many in the village and beyond the well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from tome to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles to honour it as a natural spring
(The above was the first draft of a booklet entitled St Aldhelm’s Well published by Ms Sherwood (Shepton Mallet 1991) and is printed her by kind permission of the author.
Possibly one of the most dangerous wells in Britain – St Anne’s Well at Siston
Why dangerous? St Anne’s Well lies along probably the busiest road of any holy well and thus is difficult to reach safely, and despite being along a road it is easy to miss often being full of litter.
The name St Anne’s Well appears on the 1830 OS map and the parish church is also dedicated to St Anne. It is worth noting that the cult of St. Ann was a later one, arriving in the 14th century. Perhaps E. Mardon’s 1857, ‘Rambles around Bristol’, in the Bristol Magazine and West of England Monthly Review 1 who also has the earliest written record has another origin for its name. For they describe it as:
“the once celebrated medicinal spring, of whose waters Queen Anne used to drink, visiting the village for that purpose.”
Was a then dedicated to Queen Anne and later this was misinterpreted as St Anne? Or vica versa. The reverse seems more likely as it seems odd that the Queen would have visited and the association of her name may be evidence of some attempt to de- Christianise and secularise the spring post-Reformation. Mardon (1857) also records:
“It would appear from the plaque affixed to the spring, that the villagers, in 1790, in grateful remembrance of past honours, named the waters ‘‘Saint Anne’s Well‘’, and the bridge a little further on ‘‘Saint Anne’s Bridge‘”
When R.C. Skyring Walters in 1928 in his The Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire: Their Legends, History and Topography he noted that on his visit this plaque had been stolen. However, when I visited in the site in the early 1990s, there was a green sign denoting it, but upon my visit it too was lost in the hedge. He described it as:
“a stone trough at ground level, 4ft 6in by 2ft, which is divided in a curious manner into two unequal parts… There is a high stone wall behind the trough. Until about two years ago there was an iron plate, bearing the inscription “St Anne’s Well”… Water from the well… was well-known throughout the parish of Pucklechurch for its excellent properties as an eye lotion.”
Being divided into an unusual manner Skyring Walters believed that the smallest part for a puppy the larger for a mature dog?! Presently it contains very murky water and is perhaps in need of some restoration and protection. The last time it was restored properly may have been recorded by Dorothy Vintner in her 1966, ‘Holy wells near Bristol’, Gloucestershire Countryside June 1966, when they were told that:
“local inhabitants welcome the fact that its stonework is being restored and its water-supply improved.”
Its supply arises at the Lower Lias and Rhaetic limestone lying on Keyper Marl. A. Braine in their 1891 The History of Kingswood Forest calls it a chalybeate spring and states that:
“Here a large number of poor persons who have weak eyes resort to try its healing effects.”
This reference to healing eyes and it is recorded that people travelled for miles to try the cure, being still being publicised into the 1930’s. Interestingly Phil Quinn Quinn in the excellent 1999 The Holy Wells of Bath and Bristol Region, says that:
“women would come to the well with pins to drop in, in the hope of bearing a child.”
However after reviewing Vintner’s 1966 article that author refers to this tradition in Brittany not Siston! (sadly). Unfortunately, this belief has now slipped into other accounts of the well including the excellent website btsarnia.org//the-holy-wells-of-gloucestershire which records:
“In its heyday it drew people from Bristol especially the poor and those with weak eyes or those who were infertile. Pins were dropped into the well by women, hoping to become pregnant at the next intercourse. The efficacy of the waters as an eye cure was locally publicised as late as the 1930s. Similar wells with this custom and intention existed at Wrington, East Harptree and Portishead.”
Quinn (1999) is correct of course in his observation that it is:
“now sadly holds little more than rainwater.”
Stating that it was affected by road widening another impact on this noted holy well and slowly vegetation, litter and neglect may one day claim it.
In search of rag wells: St Teilo’s Well, Llandeilo – a photo archive
In search of the Lady’s Well, Harthead, West Yorkshire
Holy well hunting can be a tough activity; covered in nettles, cuts, mud and water and still you may only find a boggy hole or concreted site. Even when it seems simple ie marked by a roadside it is not always easy. Therefore this is why it is important to search for wells in the winter month summed up by this comment on Geograph by a Humphrey Bolton :
“I had looked for this in vain several times, but was eventually informed by a lady of 90 years that it is under a hawthorn bush. After cautiously entering the bush from the side, removing a few nettle stems, I was able to take this photograph. Apparently it is opened up as necessary in times of drought, so there must be a stone slab under the twigs and soil.”
Thus in February I searched for the Lady well at Hartshead.
An ancient pre-Christian well
The Rev H. N Pobjoy in their 1972 ‘Story of the ancient parish of Harthead and Clifton’, states it may well have been here before the church which dates to 500 A.D in foundation. The author also states that it is possible that its waters were used by St. Paulinus to baptism local converts. The saint was based at Dewsbury so it is possible. It is also said that the church of St. Peter is aligned to the equinoxes which may indicate some pre-christian observations at the site. In the churchyard is a venerable yew said to predate the church as well. One wonders whether the church was once dedicated to St Mary originally?
It’s Kirklees so there must be a Robin Hood association
Not far from Hartshead is Kirklees were one can find Robin Hood’s grave. Therefore it would not be surprising to hear that no only did he use the yew tree in the grounds of the church for his bow – perhaps the famed one which he shot for the location of his burial – but he drank of the spring water.
Difficult to find?
In away the well being covered by the only large tree along Lady Well Lane means it is easy to find – well in winter anyway. As such I pushed back the branches beneath. The side closest to the road appeared to be closed over and covered in earth but I had heard that the site was a trough split in two. Jumping over the fence I found the other side of the trough and this was full of water. This was in line with what has been reported about the site being purposely closed up and only opened in times of drought.
Val Shepherd in their Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales in 2002 notes that there was in 1925-7 a historical pageant enacted about the church and that the area was associated with Whitsun walks. She also draws an association with Walton Cross – a cross base – derived from O.E Wagstan meaning a ‘guide’ post and was on the boundary of Bradford/Kirklees and their may have been an association with the holy well.
It would be good to see the Lady Well be restored as stated by Shepherd but at least as long as the lane is named after it it will be remembered and easier to find!